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Really Listening to Customers...AND Employees

This week I spent time with a leading producer of fashion goods interviewing some of their best customers and employees. The mission – find out what aspects of the shopping experience really matter to customers and which practices of the sales representatives make a difference to how much the customer buys and how satisfied they are with the overall in-store experience.

Customers were invited to the company’s facilities for one-on-one discussions in a mock store setting (a nice touch if you want to connect viscerally with your customers). They were asked about their experiences purchasing from the company as well as from other top retailers. Customers were encouraged to be honest about what they liked and pleased them most and what they were unhappy about and would like changed. They loved the fact that the company cared enough about their views to want to talk with them. We got loads of great feedback – pro and con – and lots of insights about how to improve the customer experience and jack up sales. Some invaluable comments were captured – in one instance hearing what a new customer from a prime target demographic group liked most about her buying experience and what would keep her coming back.

We heard over and over that great products and appealing stores were not enough to get and keep a top customer’s business. The store employees needed to be right too - attentive, knowledgeable, helpful, genuine, and like their jobs. If they were not, even the best customers would shop elsewhere.

Most companies would have limited this sort of data gathering exercise to their customers. Fortunately, our client went one critical step further. Top store personnel from around the country were also flown in for interviews. Like the customers, these guys loved the attention they received and appreciated that the company big wigs were interested in their views about how to improve the customer experience and drive sales. Their enthusiasm for the company, its products and serving customers gushed over like champagne from a bottle. Hearing their stories left little doubt about why they are top sales producers. These employees not only validated what the customers told us, but enriched it by helping to connect specific selling and service practices to what customers said delighted them.

By the end of the week a slew of incredibly valuable insights were captured – all because we made the effort to listen. Are you really listening to your customers and employees? Or are you merely hearing what they say? Or even worse, totally tuning out their voices?
Honestly answer these questions. Do you regularly capture formal and informal feedback from customers and employees? If you don’t, chances are good you’re tuned out. If you do, but your not disseminating and acting on this information then it’s likely your hearing but not listening to what they have to say.

Here’s a way to get tuned in...quick. Invite some of your best current and former customers and employees to your office for a chat, take them out for a meal, visit them….whatever it takes to have some frank discussions. Get them to tell you what they need and value, what they love about your offering and what you can do better or differently. Most importantly, listen to and share what they tell you as widely as possible throughout your company. Videotape the conversations if at all feasible. Many staff and especially leaders of organizations are prone to dismiss reports from the field that don’t fit their mental models or vested interests. They hear but don’t listen. But it is hard to ignore or dismiss reality when everyone throughout the company can see and hear it directly from top customers and key employees.

Tony DiRomualdo is a business researcher, writer, and advisor with Next Generation Consulting. He works at the intersection of people, business strategy, and information technology to help companies create a committed and high performance workforce. Tony can be reached at

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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